Digital Analysis and Online Publication of Early Kufic Quranic Manuscripts Kept in Iranian Collections

Kufic Qur’an manuscript attributed to Ali b. Abi Talib at Mashhad, Iran. Courtesy of IQNA

By Ali Aghaei*


Over the past thirty years, research on Quranic manuscripts has made considerable progress. Fundamental works on codicology, palaeography and dating of early Quranic manuscripts have been done, although mainly on those manuscripts originally came from the Western side of the Islamic World such as al-Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo), Damascus, and Sanaa (Yemen). To have a complete image of the Quran’s textual history, however, it is necessary to include also Quranic manuscripts kept in the collections in the Eastern side of the Islamic world. Quranic manuscripts from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia are rarely taken into account by scholars, which is mostly due to the difficulty to have access to them. In the case of Iran, as the existing though incomplete and outdated catalogues show, the number of Quranic manuscripts and fragments kept in Iranian libraries, museums and even in private collections is considerable. Based on the available catalogues as well as the information that we were able to obtain during our exploratory trips, hundreds of Quranic manuscripts and fragments before the 4th Century CE are kept in several collections in Tehran, Qom, Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, etc. The actual number of Quranic manuscripts from the first four Islamic centuries is most likely to be significantly higher, although it has been challenging to estimate due to lack of available or updated catalogues.

Thanks to the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in Germany, Irankoran can approach to previously inaccessible collections. This source material offers a new perspective on the textual history of the Quran, for it is the first time that Quranic manuscripts from the Eastern part of the Islamic world are going to be systematically scrutinised.

Irankoran is using and completing the work of the project Corpus Coranicum of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW). Since 2009, Corpus Coranicum has published the first digital comprehensive online catalogue of early Quranic manuscripts, mainly based on the Western part of the Islamic world kept in European collections. It has also developed a system for digital transliteration of Quranic manuscripts.

1. Digitalisation

In the course of the project Irankoran, images of Quranic manuscripts from Iranian collections, together with their metadata, are recorded in an online digital catalogue, “Bibliotheca Coranica Iranica”, according to the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). This online catalogue will present a prototype that will be used by other (previously unavailable) Iranian collections and will help develop more manuscript collections online. The publication path also ensures the accessibility of the data and results obtained in the Islamic world.

2. Digital editions

In addition to the digitalisation of the Iranian of Quranic manuscripts, which makes them accessible to other scholars all over the world, the project aims at preparing digital editions of early Kufic Quranic manuscripts which cover three aspects of the text: (a) spellings of the Quranic text (rasm), (b) variant readings (qirāʾāt), and verse numbering (ʿadd al-āy) in the manuscript. In order to perform this idea, a digital database has been developed where for each word of the Quran, all three information can be recorded.

3. Transliteration

All early Kufic Quranic manuscripts are planned to be transliterated into a typical Arabic typeface (naskh). Letters are written the same way as they appear in the manuscript, usually without, though sometimes with, diacritical dots. In the transliteration, vowel signs are not represented. These digital transliterations display different levels of readability, variant spellings (in comparison to other early manuscripts and modern prints like the Cairo edition), and modifications (corrections, over-writings, additions, and erasures) in the manuscript. To carry this out, Irankoran is following the transliteration system developed by the project Corpus Coranicum in a modified, adapted way in the presentation of modifications in the manuscript.

3. Variant readings

Irankoran also confronts the statements of the Islamic scholarly literature on the variant readings of the Quranic text with the readings as they appear in the early manuscripts. The main question is to what extent the seven readings of the Quran, canonised by the Baghdadian scholar Ibn Muǧāhid (died 936), can assert themselves in early Quranic manuscripts some of which predate his time.

4. Verse numbering

Almost all Quranic manuscripts from early period represent special signs for separating and sometimes numbering the verses. Since we have differences in numbering the Quranic verses which traditionally assumed to be originated from different locals and regions, one would expect that these differences appear in the Quranic manuscript as well. Again, the goal here is to assess the Islamic traditions on verse numbering through registration of the data in each manuscript into the database, and then a detailed survey of them.

5. Dating manuscripts

Dating of the manuscript plays a central role in understanding the history of the Quran. Unfortunately, early Quranic manuscripts usually have no colophon, most probably because the first and/or the last pages of the manuscript are usually exposed to damages. Of course, sometimes one finds pseudo-colophons which later inserted into the last page of manuscripts claiming attribution to the Shīʿī Imāms. Interestingly on the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at least one codex is kept that is attributed to Caliph ʿUthmān, in the city of Negel in Kurdestan, which seems very difficult to have access.

Since the paleographical classification of script styles can only provide a relative chronology for early Quranic manuscripts, dating based on radiocarbon analysis (C-14 analysis) seems to be useful. The radiocarbon measurements are carried out in cooperation with the Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics Isotope Laboratory (ETH Zurich).

Concluding Remarks

Irankoran is an interdisciplinary research project for it incorporates the philological analysis of the Quranic manuscripts and scientific dating through C-14 analysis. The results of Irankoran will be published online. Because of its digital dimension, the main goal is to encourage its academic audience of the value of digital publication and to convince the authorities in libraries and collections who still have problems to accept the idea, as it is the case in Europe, in the United States of America, and also often in the Middle East, to put their heritage online.

*Dr. Ali Aghaei is a research fellow at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) and the head of IranKoran project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in Germany.

Documenta Coranica: Codex Amrensis 1

Codex Amrensis 1, the first volume of the series Documenta Coranica contains images and Arabic texts of four sets of fragments (seventy-five sheets) of the Qurʾān codex, once kept in the ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ Mosque at Al-Fusṭāṭ, and now in the collections of the National Library of Russia, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha and the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. It includes an extensive introduction, the facsimile of the original, and the full text with annotations.The manuscript, copied during the first half of the 8th century and written in ḥiǧāzī script, contains diacritical signs for about 20% of the letters, without any signs for short vowels. It varies from today’s reference editions of the Qurʾān in verse numbering and has a different orthography. Essential reading for students and scholars of the history of the Qurʾān and its written transmission.

*Courtesy of Brill. This work, along with Sana’a Palimpsest by Asma Hilali, was recently reviewed at JAOS; see Sinai, Nicolai (2020). Beyond the Cairo Edition: On the Study of Early Quranic Codices, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 140, 1, pp. 189-204.

The Oxford Handbook of Qur’anic Studies

Edited by Mustafa Shah and M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

The Qur’an is the foundational sacred text of the Islamic faith. Traditionally revered as the literal word of God, its pronouncements and discussions form the bedrock of Islamic beliefs and teachings. Notwithstanding its religious pre-eminence and the fact that it is the sacred text for over one billion of the world’s Muslims, the Qur’an is also considered to be the matchless masterpiece of the Arabic language. Its historical impact as a text can be discerned in all aspects of the heritage of the Arabic literary tradition. Over recent decades, academic engagement with the Qur’an has produced an impressive array of scholarship, ranging from detailed studies of the text’s unique language, style and structure, to meticulous surveys of its contents, concepts and historical contexts. The Oxford Handbook of Qur’anic Studies is an essential reference and starting point for those with an academic interest in the Qur’an. It offers not only detailed reviews of influential subjects in the field, but also a critical overview of developments in the research discourse. It explores the tradition of Qur’anic exegesis and hermeneutics, making it a comprehensive academic resource for the study of the Qur’an. No single volume devoted to such a broad academic survey of the state of the field currently exists.

*Courtesy of Oxford University Press. The book will be available for pre-orders on May 28, 2020

The Discovery of an Umayyad Open-Air Mosque in Southern Jordan and its Early Kufic Inscriptions

The Wadi Shīreh open-air mosque. Courtesy of Firās al-Bqāʿīn

Two scholars from the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) recently discovered an open-air Mosque in Wadi Shireh, Jordan. Glenn Corbett and Firas Bqain were examining an archaeological site in Wadi Rum in the south Kingdom, which was being overlooked. On that site, a mosque is located from the times of the Umayyads, which dates back to the 7th to 8th centuries. It was found in a remote location of Wadi Shireh. Although both scholars were studying and researching the archaeological site for quite some time now, they were not the first to discover this mosque. Their researchers sought help from the research of late William Jobling of the University of Sydney, who was the first to identify this important archaeological site and the mosque. Corbett also mentioned in an article that they are not the first to discover or study the mosque located in Wadi Shireh. Corbett is Associate Director in ACOR and holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago. Jobling recorded the whole area in his research. He did not dig the area and just recorded what remained on the surface. There were early Islamic inscriptions on the surrounding site.

Corbett said in a statement that mosque inscriptions and the surrounding structures are all visible when walking through the wadi. Jobling’s Report about this mosque was a gem for the Arab and foreign scholars, and it attracted their attention. The centre of attention of scholar’s research was the Kufic inscriptions on the site, which were dating back to the month of Ramadan in the year 109 Hijri. These Arab and foreign Scholars then published articles in the Journal of Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam and Jordan Department of Antiquities and the University of Jordan’s journal Dirasat. Firas Bqain was one of these Jordanian scholars, and he is now an administrator in ACOR. He also wrote his master’s thesis on Shireh Mosque. Corbett and Bqain started working together in 2012 to attract the attention of academic scholars all around the world to this beautiful ancient Umayyad mosque of Wadi Shireh. They were interested in understanding how this mosque came to existence and what meaning the inscriptions hold. They also sought to understand the structure of the mosque and what importance it stays in a broader historical, archaeological, and environmental context.

Kufic inscription dated 109 AH. It reads: “In the name of God, the gracious, the merciful. O God, accept from ʿAbd al-ʿAlā bin Saʿīd his prayers and his fasting and keep him among his family, and support him in his [victory or travel] and make him virtuous, for you are[capable of all things]. May God bless him and grant him peace and peace be upon him and the mercy of God and his blessings. He wrote in Ramaḍān, year nine and one hundred.”

According to Corbett for the easy access of water, there were seasonal water pools located near the mosque. Also, the mosque’s Kufic inscriptions point towards its building and ascribed to Salamah Ibn Rawh. It is believed that the mosque was built by important figures of Judham and the dominant tribe of the Hisma that were allies of the Umayyads. The tribe of Hisma and Umayyads greatly benefited from this site by taxing the trade and pilgrimage caravans. This region was suitable for caravans to go through. The site acted like a seasonal way station for caravans. It served early Muslim travellers were journeying through Hisma to southern Jordan. The site appears to be heavily settled in early period. Because of the isolation and uniqueness of Wadi Shireh and the mosque that is in these barren lands of the Hisma, little can be said about their historical context. These archaeological sites need more research and investigation to understand more about the history and social culture of these sites.

The mosque’s foundation stone. It reads: “In the name of God the gracious, the merciful. This is the mosque of Salamah ibn Rawh. May God bless who prays [in it]

The existing research gives us a hint that these barren lands ones were filled with civilization. The Shireh mosque is located in much larger Wadi Rabigh. Near Wadi Rabigh is Wadi Hafir and both Wadi’s are adjacent to each other. Wadi Shireh provided easy access to the caravans and travellers between these two Wadis (Valleys). Wadi Shireh was also a big source of natural water reserves in the shape of pools that retained water for several months through out they year. The Wadi was also engulfed in acacia trees which are a favourite food of camels and also was home to lush patches of vegetation and pasture. Wadi Shireh also acted as a station for the travellers. It provided a secluded and secure camping point. The Kufic inscriptions further support that the Shireh Mosque was mostly visited by travellers. The inscriptions make references to the travellers who visited the site and the mosque during their journey.

The Mosque is built in a rectangular shape the construction is double-wall and resembles its surrounding structures. It is aligned and oriented according to the cardinal directions which gives a sense of a planned and purpose-built structure which is perhaps authorized by local or regional authorities of Umayyad period to facilitate travellers. These types of simple structures were quite common in early Islamic period. The southern Wadi Arabah and nearby regions of Negev are also considered to be agricultural villages or industrial sites that were thought to be established by Umayyad people. According to the research the authorities built these settlements to expand their trading to southern Palestine and other zones that were near to the desert.

Wadi Shireh mosque due to its remote location has been the target of destructive digging in past few years. It is situated in an area which is far from the region’s main road and tourist camps. It is one of the most important heritage of Islamic history and should be preserved. Authorities, archaeologists and Islamic scholars should take measures to preserve this holy site.

Editor’s note: The content of this article is based on the scholarly publication of al-Bqāʿīn, Firas & Corbett, Glenn & Khamis, Elias. (2015). An Umayyad Era Mosque and Desert Waystation from Wadi Shīreh, Southern Jordan. Journal of Islamic Archaeology. 2. 93-126.